Being here, in Europe, continues to be a tremendous boon to my anemic education in world history. The visit to Dachau ~the Nazi concentration camp named for its proximity to the German village; yes, stepping onto the train marked Dachau is chilling~ with its exhaustive interpretation center which lays out with stark clarity just how the dominoes fell and how far, instilled a watchfulness I hope to retain the rest of my days; it could have happened anywhere, to anyone. Promises of a better future to a beleaguered nation from a charismatic leader always go down easy. How the rest of the world looked away is the other side of that coin and the lesson to be learned. It always begins with someone else.First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
It was Germany’s misfortune to be so orderly and efficient that Hitler’s plans were implemented with such powerful effect. Positive traits in the national character were, in this case, their undoing. Stereotypes, for good or ill, usually have some kernel of truth. Nations, like individuals, have personalities. We have our strengths and our flaws; sometimes it isn’t even clear which is which.
The Nazis had swept across continental Europe. They were banging on Britain’s front door, but the English held their land with a traditional stiff-upper lip, self-sacrifice, and sheer bloody-mindedness. A national moat didn’t hurt either. But their resources were dwindling. Then Hitler backed off, continuing to fight for Russian soil on a second front. A fool’s errand that would be the opportunity the Allies needed to turn the war. England became the staging ground for the largest amphibious invasion force in history. That force consisted of English, Canadian, and primarily American troops.
The practical window was limited, the weather harsh, the odds horrific, the alternative unthinkable. Eisenhower said, “Go.” They went. 160,000 men and women crossed the Channel. Of 73,000 Americans, 2499 died that day.
Thousands of miles away from home, on a windswept shore, they gave their lives to liberate a foreign land. It took a special character to accept that challenge and pay that price. There are photos of those soldiers, before they went, with brash and cocky smiles. Just kids, ready to barge into France and take it back from the bully. And that’s what it took. People with the chutzpah to charge, wave after wave, up those beaches, past their fallen countrymen, willing to fall themselves to gain another foot of freedom. Pushy, loud, demanding Americans. Yes, you’re welcome.